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‘Tehran’ is a groundbreaking Israeli spy show about immigrant identity

By Lio Zaltzman

(JTA) – It all started in 2014, with an e-mail that arrived in Dana Eden’s inbox with the subject line: “Tehran.”

“I said to myself, ‘Oh my God, that’s an amazing title,’” said Eden. “That’s a show I would really want to see, I hope that what’s written inside will be as good as the title is.”

What was inside were three possible opening scenes to “Tehran,” a thriller about a young Israeli Mossad agent in Iran. Eden would go on to create the show for Israel’s KAN11 broadcaster along with Maor Cohen and Moshe Zonder, a head writer for the Israeli hit “Fauda.” The show debuted on KAN earlier this year and the first three epi-sodes became available to global audiences on Friday, Sept. 25, on Apple TV+.

“Tehran” revolves around protagonist Tamar Rabinyan, a Mossad agent played by Niv Sultan. Rabinyan is in Iran for her first mission – to hack into an Iranian nuclear reac-tor and help facilitate an Israeli Air Force attack on the site. When her mission fails, Tamar is stuck in Iran with intelligence officers on her tail.

But while the spy story of “Tehran” is suspenseful and captivating, it’s the human as-pect of the show, the way it explores the identity of Iranian immigrants to Israel and how they struggle to feel a sense of belonging, that is most compelling. Tamar immi-grated with her family to Israel as a child and her Mossad operator is of Persian back-ground as well.

Eden says “Tehran” tries to answer painful questions about Iranian Jews’ lived experi-ence.

“What do you do when you immigrate from a country and your homeland becomes your enemy country?” Eden said. “Where is your home? Where is your loyalty? Where do you put yourself?”

Sultan learned Farsi for the show. She thought that as the daughter of an Arabic-speaking Moroccan immigrant, she could easily master the Iranian tongue. But Farsi took her by surprise.

“The pronunciation of Farsi is so different than Hebrew, or Arabic, I had really to change things in my mouth in order to say those words,” Sultan said.

The show is unparalleled in its production values for an Israeli series. The crew re-modeled entire streets and houses in Athens to look like the Iranian capital. Iranian refugees flew in from all over Europe to take part as extras.

Niv Sultan as Tamir Rabinyan in “Tehran.” (Apple TV+)

“We also had an Iranian immigrant into Israel, he was in charge of authenticity on set, that it will look Iranian and authentic,” said Eden, who like most Israelis has never been to Iran. “And also he was in charge of the language, [ensuring] that [the cast] speak Farsi in an authentic way.”

The cast features Navid Negahban, who has appeared in “Homeland,” “Legion,” and “Aladdin,” and Shaun Toub, who has been in “Homeland,” “Snowpiercer,” and “Iron Man.” Toub plays Faraz, a top Iranian intelligence agent who is the cat to Tamar’s mouse.

Toub is an Iranian Jew, but he said he didn’t draw on his personal experience for the role. “As an actor, I am blessed to say that I really approach a character in a way that I really take Shaun Toub, myself, out of it,” Toub said.

Still, he says Faraz was an incredible role to play. And he has been surprised by how many Iranians have enjoyed the show.

“I have been at the business for 33 years, and I’ve been waiting and hoping that that one day, there will be characters, as Persians and Iranians, that show [our] complexity as humans, you know, as doctors, as engineers, and not just terrorists,” he said.

Sultan, a 28-year-old rising Israeli star, says she was also drawn to Tamar’s complex, flawed character.

“She’s not, you know, the cliche of another Mossad Israeli superhero saving the world,” Sultan said. “She’s a real person. She carries so many colors. And she’s so strong, physically and emotionally, but she’s also afraid and insecure and makes mis-takes.”

Zonder said the story is only superficially about the war between the Mossad and the Iranian nuclear program. Its core is a tale of identity, immigration and family roots.

“The most moving reactions were from the people that families came from Iran,” Zonder said. “All of their lives, they were ashamed of their parents, and grandmother and grandfather, ashamed of their heritage. And after seeing the show, they become proud of it.”

He added: “And they’re ashamed of themselves – of being ashamed for all those years.”

At the end, Eden says, her message for Jewish audiences is “to be proud.”

“We’re all immigrants. And wherever your homeland is, be proud of it and feel con-nected to it. And don’t lose your roots. Always feel Jewish. And don’t ignore your past. Embrace it,” she said.

Bette Midler shines as an angry Jew in HBO’s ‘Coastal Elites’

By Curt Schleier

(JTA) – HBO debuted playwright Paul Rudnick’s “socially distanced satire” film “Coastal Elites” last week – and the star of the show is Bette Midler, whose Jewish character symbolizes the divide between America’s liberal cities and its heartland.

The film is built on five remotely filmed monologues from characters based in either New York or Los Angeles during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Midler plays Miriam Nessler, a retired New York City school teacher who may be the quintessential coastal elite. And one who is unapologetically Jewish, who also gets arrested for taking a red Make America Great Again hat off of a pedestrian on the street and running away with it.

“He’s wearing jeans and a windbreaker, and the hat – the red hat. You know the one. The MAGA hat. In New York City, two blocks from the Public Theater,” Nessler says of the hat-wearer. “It’s like me going to Nebraska, wearing a yarmulke, waving a rainbow flag while reading a book!”

Despite her words, Nessler doesn’t quite look down at the rest of the country. But the truth is that she is by self-definition “a liberal Jewish woman. On the census, where it says religion, I don’t put down Jewish. I put down the New York Times.

To clarify, the print edition.

“Reading the Times online is like having sex with a robot. It’s cleaner and faster, but you can tell the difference. New York Times online is for gentiles,” Nessler says.

Bette Midler in “Coastal Elites”

The other characters are Mark Hesterman (played by Jewish actor Dan Levy), a gay actor auditioning to play the first gay super hero in a big movie; Callie Josephson (Isa Rae), a wealthy black woman who went to private school with Ivanka Trump; Clarissa Montgomery (Sarah Paulson), a woman who creates meditation videos; and Sharynn Tarrows (Kaitlyn Dever), a nurse from Wyoming who comes to New York to help during the pandemic.

Besides the very funny jokes, at the center of “Coastal Elites” is a sense of wariness, an unease because after all this time, after all the news, there is a national divide over something where there should be unity.

Rudnick noticed about a year ago that “everybody I knew on every side of the political divide was in a permanent state of anger and heart break over the future of the country.” “Coastal Elites” is the result of that feeling.

He was raised in a Jewish household, attended Hebrew school, had a bar mitzvah, but it was primarily “cultural Jewish.  We’d focus on the Jewish traditions, education and culture and civic responsibility.” At dinner the family would discuss what was in the Times that morning and on that night. His parents, he says, “were very good liberals and also deeply curious. And they emphasized real engagement in life.”

Rudnick, who has written other screenplays, plays, and novels, says he is “grateful for that great Jewish comic tradition, a way of speaking that’s wry and skeptical and loving, all at the same time, which is nuts and doesn’t make any sense at all.”

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